meets parents of children with autism and hears about the challenges faced by kids and adults in an unprecedented era when they have to cope with being socially isolated
For Karen and Jon O’Mahony, parents and full-time carers of two boys with autism (as well as being parents of an older son and daughter), their biggest fear is regression now that the schools are closed down.
And the Rainbow Club, which the couple set up in Mahon Community Centre five years ago, is also temporarily shut down.
This largely voluntary club addresses the social challenges which children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience.
It has the expertise of a play therapist and it facilitates sports and other activities.
Catering to 428 children, the club was recently given funding by the Social Innovation Fund Ireland which allows it to employ a speech and language therapist.
But now, Karen is worried that once the schools re-open, “we could be facing challenging behaviour and having to start from scratch again.
"Things like toilet training, fine motor skills and speech and language could be affected.”
Karen also fears for the mental health of parents of children with autism. She is supporting parents who use the Rainbow Club, giving them exercises to do with their children, communicating online.
“Jon and I are very strong but we’re wondering how long this coronavirus is going to go on. When you see your child struggle, you’re going to struggle yourself.
"There’s no end in sight. We’re all trying to stay positive. Jon and I are all about motivating parents and giving them as much support as we can.”
Their two sons with autism are fourteen-year-old Sean and eleven- year-old Stephen. Socialising causes them “huge anxiety,” says Karen.
The issue now is more the anxiety around this whole situation, why we’re all at home and why their schedule has been so drastically changed.”
Karen says she is trying to protect her sons from the TV news reports on the pandemic. “Stephen is worrying about his brother, Troy, in Dublin.
"He’s panicking, wondering what’s going to happen to him. It’s affecting Stephen’ s sleep and appetite. We’re trying to face-time Troy as much as we can, to make sure Stephen has contact with him.”
The brothers know what’s going on.
“They’re on social media, they’re watching YouTube videos and talking to friends online. You can only protect them a certain amount.”
There have been a couple of “meltdowns. They’re around what is happening in the world. They understand it up to a point.
But even things like telling them to hand wash a lot, you have to be really careful. A lot of the kids we see have obsessive behaviour. They could get scared long-term about germs or being around people.”
Sean, says Karen, is struggling at the moment. A second year pupil at Nagle Community School, he is “a very literal thinker. Everything is black and white.
"There’s nothing in between. And then there’s the hormones as well. His outbursts release tension. We have him doing lots of body work at the moment.”
Karen’s advice to parents of children with special needs includes “making sure that you’re ok yourself."
Also, you really need to restrict your children’s amount of social media because it’s not helpful. It’s important to reach out to other parents, even if it’s only talking on the phone.
She also talks about the importance of establishing a routine for children in these challenging times.
The principal of the School of the Divine Child at the Lavanagh Centre in Ballintemple, Patricia Harrington, is in charge of thirty-seven pupils aged four to eighteen.
She and the other teachers are now in online communication with the parents, giving them exercises to do with the children.
The children, two of whom are studying for the Junior Certificate, “all have a primary physical disability or an illness. Some of them have associated learning difficulties as well.”
Patricia says it was “traumatic” to hear on the radio that all schools had to close down.
“We had anticipated something would happen so we did have some materials ready for the children but nothing was done in a planned way. We’re now in the process of phoning the parents on an individual basis. I spoke to a parent who was very frightened.
"I gave her my number if she needs anything. We know how to make contact with social workers if needed. So there is that kind of support.
"But mostly, we reckon the parents and the children want to hear a voice. And we’re using online school resources that the pupils would be familiar with such as Twinkle and World Book.
"Our next step is to plan what school-based material we can send. We’re working in our homes as a group of teachers, using a common school email address.”
The School of the Divine Child sounds like a unique school in that “after the summer holidays, the children are delighted to see the teachers.
"So now, they’re going to miss all of that socialisation which is a very important part of life for them. They all come from very caring families. But most of the pupils need the routine of school. So it’s very difficult for them. The main advice is to keep to a routine.
"We’ll be sending out material about the school, maybe a school story, so they can keep reading that.
Hopefully, the parents will go back over what their children have done during the year and remind them of it.”